He was named Cornelius Duson McNaughton when he was born June 8, 1819, at Point Levis, across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec. He was the youngest of six sons of William McNaughton and Catherine Lambert. In 1837, during a French uprising against the British government of Canada, all of the family except 17-year-old Cornelius remained loyal to the British.
"Our young hero," writes biographer William Henry Perrin, "had a bosom friend and companion, one S. Lombert, whom he had learned to love from childhood. Through Lombert's influence, he was induced to join the French revolutionists."
His father and brothers warned Cornelius that he could be killed in the fighting, or hanged for treason when the powerful British finished dealing with the trouble.
"But Cornelius... had his course mapped out, and his convictions were too strong to be changed," Perrin wrote. He vowed to his family that "if the French cause was lost they would never hear from him 'til the grass grew green over his grave."
The British captured Lombert and seven other rebels and jailed them in Ottawa, but Cornelius managed to get away. He went to the Ottawa jail, met the jailer and attempted to get him drunk and steal the jail keys.
It turned out that the jailer had some experience with booze and didn't reach the required state of intoxication. So Cornelius adopted a simpler plan. He went back to the jail with the man, bopped him on the head with a piece of firewood, opened the cells and freed his friends.
They made their way to Kingston, a settlement on the Canadian side of Lake Ontario, stole a boat and ferried themselves to the U.S. side. British soldiers chased them, killing some of them and shooting Cornelius through the thigh. He hid in a cabin in the woods until he was well enough to travel and eventually made his way to Boston. When he got there, he found out the British had posted a reward for his capture.
He dropped McNaughton from his name and headed south.
We don't know why or exactly how he got to Louisiana. He may have just kept running south until there was no more south to run to. He ended up near Lake Arthur where he met and on May 65, 1845, married 15-year-old Sarah Ann Webb. He became a tanner and saddle maker and moved to St. Martin Parish where he died in 1857.
"He often related the story of his youthful experience to his family," Perrin wrote, "but of the mystery of the name he bore, he breathed not a word."
He did tell his wife that he hoped that family ties could be reestablished after his death, and he told his doctor to warn him when death was near - apparently so that he could reveal his true family name.
But Cornelius died suddenly, away from his family, and his secret died with him.
His two sons visited Canada in 1884 to try to find their family. They found Cornelius's old friend Lombert, but he didn't remember anyone named Duson.
Finally, when the sons began to tell the tale their father told them, Perrin says, "the feeble old man burst into tears, and with an effort rose to his feet and said, 'No, no! I see it now. You are Con's children. Your name is not Duson, but McNaughton. Let me lead you to your people.'"
Lombert told the sons that the McNaughton family had long ago secured a pardon for Cornelius and had searched high and low for him. Later on, the sons learned that their father knew about the pardon and that his family was searching for him.
But, as Perrin tells it, "with terrible determination he kept his vow, and his people never did hear of him until 'green grew the grass over his grave.'"
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